What’s Your Reaction Time in a Crisis?

Johnson & Johnson remains the beacon for apologizing well.

In a 72-hour period, starting September 29, 1982, seven people died in the Chicago land area after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol, the painkiller that was the drug maker’s best-selling product. Even though Johnson & Johnson was not responsible for the product tampering, they took full responsibility in acting decisively and swiftly. Their first order of business was to decide, “How do we protect the people?”

It took 20 minutes for Johnson & Johnson’s board to decide how they would react to this catastrophe. With the Golden Rule firmly strapped to their back, they set to work.

  • A product recall amounting to an estimated 31 million bottles (worth over $100 million in sales) began immediately.
  • Advertising was halted.
  • With bullhorns blaring, Chicago health and law-enforcement officials swarmed Chicago-area streets, warning everyone not to take Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules and to bring in suspicious bottles for testing.
  • Anticyanide kits were distributed to all paramedic units.

To prevent any more people from taking the tampered Tylenol capsules, Tylenol representatives worked with local authorities, schools, even Boy Scout troops. Children were sent home from school with notes, and transit system workers formed a continuous human megaphone, spreading the word. Church and civic groups sent folks door-to-door to reach those who might have missed the warnings.

What's Your Reaction Time in a Crisis?

Because Johnson & Johnson acted swiftly and decisively from their core values, an incident that could have put the company under ultimately raised them up. Many predicted that the Tylenol brand, which accounted for 17 percent of the company’s net income in 1981, would never recover from the sabotage. As expected, Tylenol’s marketplace share dropped to 7 percent in September 1982. Only two months later, Tylenol headed back to the market, with gelcaps and caplets and extensive safety precautions in packaging and labeling. By February 1983 market share grew to 28 percent. Since then, Tylenol gelcaps have recaptured 92 percent of the capsule segment sales lost after the cyanide incident.

  • What’s your timeline for taking care of customers when the unthinkable happens?
  • Would you pass the “Tylenol Test” in a crisis situation?
  • Would your first reaction be to take care of customers? Or would you consider your options more carefully to determine what you had to do to mitigate harm and liability?
  • Are there plans you can set in motion as soon as a crisis occurs?
  • Do you have a plan to utilize social media and mobile devices in a customer crisis?
  • Are you ready?

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